Sepp Blatter, the President of FIFA, the world governing body of football, has been concerned for some time with the preponderance of foreign players, not least in the English FA Premier League, the most successful and popular of the Football Leagues, with devoted followers throughout the world. And Blatter has recently been pontificating on the subject, announcing that he wants to introduce a cap on the number of foreign players in football teams. And, furthermore, will take on the European Commission if there are any objections to this move on the grounds of discrimination, freedom of movement of players or incompatibility with European Union (EU) Competition Law. Indeed, UEFA, the European governing body of football, is already working on its so-called 'home grown players' regulations, with the same aims and objectives.
So, what are the arguments for and against such initiatives, from a sporting and a legal point of view?
The main sporting argument in favour of such caps appears to be that the use of foreign players is detrimental to developing home grown talent. In other words, young non-foreign players, who would eventually be eligible to play in national teams in international football competitions, such as the World Cup and the UEFA Cup, are not being encouraged, trained and brought on, as substantial financial resources are being committed to buying foreign expensive players. Another sporting reason in favour of limiting the number of foreigners per team is that such restrictions would help to balance out the game. In other words, there would be more foreign players to go round the various teams and this would even out and enhance the competitive element and make for better matches. After all, leagues thrive on real competition and uncertainty of outcome!
Whereas, the main sporting argument against foreign player caps, taking again the example of the English FA Premier League, seems to be that such leagues and competitions would be less attractive from the fans' and also from the broadcasters' points of view. One main reason for the success of this League is the presence of leading foreign players in the teams that compete in this competition, adding excitement and passion to the game. In turn, this makes such a League attractive also to broadcasters, who are willing to pay mega sums for the TV rights. For example, the English Premier League, the richest in the world, has sold its principal broadcast rights to its matches for the next three seasons, beginning in August 2007 and ending in 2010, for a record sum of 1.7bn [pounds sterling]. Again, the lion's share of these rights, namely 92 live matches per season, have been sold to the satellite broadcaster, BSkyB, which will be shown as part of its Sky Sports package on a subscription basis. The deal means that BSkyB is paying about 4.8m [pounds sterling] per game. The Irish pay-TV firm, Setanta, has won the right to show 46 matches per season, at a cost of about 2.8m [pounds sterling] per game. Since acquiring the rights, BT (British Telecom) has entered into an alliance with Setanta, under which BT will offer its subscribers to its broadband service, BT Vision, packages to view 'near live' Premier League matches (that is, at 22 00 hours on the day of the games) on a monthly subscription basis. Such sums and deals are not to be sniffed at or ignored by football clubs and broadcasters alike. So, it all seems to be a matter of money, and, the view in many quarters, particularly amongst fans, is that this obsession with the financial side of football is tending to undermine the integrity of and tarnish 'the beautiful game'.
But what of the legal position regarding these caps? Would such schemes limiting foreign players pass muster under EU Law? Particularly now since the decision of the European Court of Justice in the Meca-Medina case (Case C-519/04P, Meca-Medina and Majcen v. …